The Magic Flute, K. 620, Overture
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
November 20, 21 & 22, 2015
Program Notes by Dr. Joella Utley
Mozart was very busy in 1791, writing an Italian opera (La clemenza di Tito) for the coronation of Emperor Leopold, King of Bohemia, as well as his Requiem Mass. Yet he was eager to finish a new opera he had started the previous year. It was to be a singspiel – a German opera with spoken as well as sung dialogue, incorporating some new elements known as Zauberoper (magic opera). In this work Mozart created such an imaginative fairy tale story that even children love the opera.
The Magic Flute brought the message of tolerance and human brotherhood – ideals of the Masonic order to which Mozart belonged. In this emerging Age of Enlightenment, humanitarian liberty was a rallying cry for the common man. Both Mozart and Schikaneder (the librettist) were Freemasons, as were many of the intellectuals of Austria at the time. It was a hidden society, which harbored some of the ideals that led to the French revolution – liberty, equality and fraternity.
The finished work premiered on September 30, 1791 at Vienna’s Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden. The critics were rather disappointed but the pubic loved it. The opera celebrated its 100th performance the following year (November 1792). However Mozart did not witness that 100th performance for in November 1791 he became seriously ill and died on December 5, 1791.
The Overture was written just days before the premiere – not so unusual for Mozart, who was known for his speed of composition. Masonic symbols are spread throughout the opera and its Overture, where the number three has special meaning. There are Three Ladies, Three Boys, Three Priests and Three Slaves.
The opening three chords of the Overture may represent three knocks at the temple door – part of the Masonic ritual. These three somber chords are followed by a sweet melodic interval leading to a spirited Allegro. The music then returns to a brooding repeat of the three solemn chords. The remainder of the Overture is joyful and uplifting with syncopation, dynamic contrasts, and fugal treatment of the theme.
Symphony No. 40, K. 550, G minor
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Mozart’s life has been told repeatedly, both in factual and romanticized versions. He was a musical genius – playing the clavier at age three…composing at five…thrilling audiences with his ability to play while blindfolded, improvise on command, transpose into any key and recognize the pitch of any note he heard.
There is no doubt that Mozart produced an amazing amount of music. He often composed in his head and wrote the music later. He was paid well, but he had difficulty managing money, often asking for loans from his friends. He had warm relationships with Haydn, and Johann Christian Bach. Salieri, also, was probably a good friend, although jealous.
In 1788, when his fortunes were at their lowest, Mozart wrote his final three symphonies, Nos. 39, 40, and 41. These works show the greatest form ever brought to the Classical period. Despite debts and ill health he was able to create these monumental works in six weeks.
Symphony in G minor, No. 40 begins with a sense of urgency and anxiety, a style called “sturm and drang,” while the contrasting second movement brings some gentle relaxation. The Minuet in triple time is strong and has been described as militaristic, not exactly dance-like. In the finale movement we sense a mood of anger as we hear swings of sudden contrasts from soft to loud.
Symphony in G minor, No. 40 has been described as touched with sadness, yet with a “range of passion” (Tovey). Berlioz spoke of the symphony’s “grace, delicacy, melodic charm, and fineness of workmanship.” In the late1700’s great emotion was not considered part of the light, airy Classical style. In its day the Symphony in G Minor was a bold, radical expression of sentiment. Some critics took Mozart to task for his excessive melodiousness, but most, in the early 1800’s, wrote in flowing terms. Eric Blom called it “Mozart’s Pathetique Symphony, full of unhappy agitation.” Finally, it has been said that in the G minor Symphony, Mozart is rebelling against his fate.
The Abduction from the Seraglio, K. 384, Overture
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
In 1781 Mozart moved from Salzburg to Vienna where he lived for the last ten years of his life. The Austrian Emperor, Joseph II, encouraged all forms of artistic endeavor including opera. As a part of his striving for enlightenment, Joseph established the National-Singspiel, a German opera company, which was to be entertainment for the masses.
Mozart was commissioned to write a singspiel – a play set to music, and he chose a play with a Turkish plot. Vienna was quite taken with all things Turkish – the dress, hairstyle, music, and stories. However, there were tensions and frequent border clashes between Austria and Turkey.
The story of The Abduction from the Seraglio involves a clash between the two cultures and ends with a tempered message. Using a contemporary theme, which was politically correct in the eyes of Emperor Joseph, Mozart brought out adventure, an inner view of a Turkish harem, and created dilemmas, which ended happily. This work was the first important opera in the German language and the beginning of the German comic opera.
The Overture portrays a cheerful mood, but also contains a touch of sadness, fitting the story of The Abduction from the Seraglio. The opening Presto with its Middle Eastern sounds gives way to a gentle Andante with piccolo and flutes. Mozart used the triangle and bass drum, customary in Turkish music. Pianos of the day were fitted with tiny drum-and-bell attachments to create a Turkish effect. Mozart wrote of this overture, “It alternates between forte and piano, the Turkish music being always forte, modulated by changes of key, and I do not think anyone can go to sleep over it.” The music changes to Presto in the final movement as the curtain is being raised on the entrance to the actors.
The Abduction from the Seraglio was first performed in Vienna, July 16, 1782 to a packed house. There was enthusiastic applause after every number and several pieces had to be repeated. An early biographer states that the emperor complained that the opera had “too many notes.” To which Mozart is said to have replied, “Exactly the necessary number, your Majesty.”
Symphony No. 38, K. 504, D major (Prague)
Wolgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Mozart lived his last ten years in Vienna (1781-1791) where, at first, he took the city by storm. He was hailed as a master and his music was totally appreciated. However, later in the decade his popularity began to wane due to the fickle nature of the Viennese public.
Not so in Prague, where he had a devoted following. Here his every musical composition was hailed as a masterpiece. In particular, Prague’s reception of Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, was so great that Mozart and his wife were invited to the city during the winter opera season of 1786-1787 where they were treated to posh receptions and lavish dinners. On January 16, 1787 Mozart attended a production of Figaro and on January 22nd he conducted the performance. In a letter to his father Mozart reported, “Everyone was writing about it, talking about it, humming it, whistling it, and dancing it.”
On that trip Mozart brought with him a new symphony that he had completed in December, just a few weeks earlier. He conducted a concert at the National Theater in Prague that included his newest, Symphony in D Major K. 504. Because of this first performance of Symphony No. 38 in the city of Prague, it became known as the “Prague.” Before Mozart returned to Vienna he was commissioned to write a new opera for the city, resulting in Don Giovanni, which premiered in Prague in October of the same year.
Symphony No. 38 is considered unusual for the latter part of the 1700’s, as it is a three-movement symphony (fast-slow-fast), when four-movement works were becoming very popular. Most of Mozart’s other symphonies included a minuet movement, producing a fast-slow-minuet-fast pattern. Some believe that Mozart was aware that the audience in Prague did not care for the dance movement. Also unusual in this work is the abundant use of woodwind instruments. Wind players of Bohemia were famous throughout Europe. Here Mozart wrote long passages for the winds alone, with no strings playing at all. The first movement begins with a long, slow introduction followed by an energetic Allegro. The lyrical Andante is tranquil and expressive in contrast to the short finale, a lively Presto.